Obama Addresses the Race Issue Head On

Obama Addresses the Race Issue Head On March 19, 2008

I am not an American. I don’t like to interfere with American politics. This post should certainly not be construed as any kind of endorsement or rejection of any particular candidate for President of the United States. Last time I checked, only Americans have the responsibility of selecting the leader of the free world! I do appreciate, however, the strength of feelings on all sides that Obama, and more recently the comments by his ex-pastor, have ignited. You should not try and read into this post a position on Obama’s policies, although you would not be surprised to learn that, as a conservative Christian, I obviously have serious concerns about some ethical issues.

I think that in assessing political happenings, it is interesting to look at candidates as emerging leaders and examine what works or does not work in their attempts to persuade the electorate to suspend its usual cynicism and believe in their abilities to deliver on their rhetoric. So I am interested in trying for a moment to put aside some of the political issues and look at this speech as an example of someone attempting to assert leadership in the face of a stormy challenge. Is it a good example? Will it “work,” at least in some sense? Is it inevitable that this subject will arouse more heat than light? The strength of the reactions I have read online today on both sides of the fence might suggest that is the case. But I wonder what the political feel will be like once the reactions have had time to settle down. Again, don’t expect me to pin my colors to the mast in answering those questions decisively. I don’t know enough about the American scene to give such clear answers. Think instead of this post as throwing a few half-formed ideas of my own out there, and also reflecting and linking to some other material on this that I have found online. It is more a brainstorming exercise designed to make YOU think about this issue for yourself. I am asking the questions more than giving the answers.

As I hinted earlier, I enjoy following the political scene, not so much from a purely political perspective, but rather from being a student of leadership wherever it is found. I think that the concept of leadership is something very important to study, and about which we should learn all we can. In many ways politics has two sides—policy (which these days often reveals few significant differences between candidates) and leadership. I am much more interested in the latter. So, for example, even in my most politicized post yet—when I was strongly critical of Prime Minister Gordon Brown—in my mind, it was less about his policies and more about his leadership style.

It is impossible, of course, to completely separate leadership style from the impression we form of a candidate or leader from the media’s coverage of him. I am a great believer however, in trying to base one’s judgment of a leader on what he himself says. As a result, I couldn’t help sharing this video here for any of my readers in America and elsewhere who have not already seen it. I am particularly interested in the comments of American Christians on what is found in this full-length address given in direct response to the controversy over Obama’s ex-pastor.

I won’t say much about Obama’s speech myself, except to state some initial reactions. In the video we see a man fighting for his political life. This is surely the most important speech of Obama’s life. He could easily have sounded evasive or defensive. Instead, he faces the issue head on and uses it as an opportunity to express his views about how to tackle the racial divides. He seems to me to be trying to strike a calm note, and even at one point attempts to direct the whole nation in how it should think about the current election campaign. Whatever you might think about his politics, it is certainly interesting to consider this speech and come to your own conclusion about whether it succeeds in the goal Obama clearly had for it. People will come to very different conclusions, I’m sure. Some loved it. Some hated it. This is surely because in some sense Obama has been identified as part of unfinished business in the minds of many Americans. As Shelby Steele put it in an article for the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Obama Bargain“:

“For many Americans—black and white—Barack Obama is simply too good (and too rare) an opportunity to pass up. For whites, here is the opportunity to document their deliverance from the shames of their forbearers. And for blacks, here is the chance to document the end of inferiority. So the Clintons have found themselves running more against America’s very highest possibilities than against a man. And the press, normally happy to dispel every political pretension, has all but quivered before Mr. Obama. They, too, have feared being on the wrong side of destiny.”

The BBC has a comment piece that applauds the speech as nuanced and subtle and as truly great. But then they add to the following quote an honest confession that they simply do not know what it will do for Obama’s votes:

“Barack Obama has probably given one of the best speeches of the campaign, genuinely reaching out to resentful whites and blacks, dousing the usual allegorical and oblique debate about race in a huge dose of honesty.

It was a great speech. A black and a white colleague both called it the best speech on race since Martin Luther King spoke about his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That’s one hell of a compliment.

But there is a difference. King had a dream. Obama also has an election to win.

And yet, this was the only speech he could have given. As someone of mixed race, he was the only candidate who could have given it with any integrity. I have swum in those waters, as he likes to say.”

On the side of Obama supporters in the media and online, many have hailed his racism speech as the one that will give him the keys to the White House once all the dust has settled. The Washington Post described it in the following headline: “Invited to Wrestle in a Racial Mud Pit, Obama Soars Above It“. In addition, The Dallas News seemed similarly impressed saying:

“For months, the matter of race has hovered like an unwanted guest at the edges of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Barack Obama’s speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday was organized amid controversy over several comments by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. On Tuesday, he put the subject squarely in the middle of the room.

Facing a firestorm over his pastor’s remarks about race in America, Mr. Obama took a bold step—rather than play down the conflict, he embraced it. In a 37-minute speech that pulled no punches about attitudes among both blacks and whites, he challenged the country to have a serious dialogue about race.”

On the other hand some conservatives have responded very strongly to the current situation. Dan Phillips is a notable example, although he does not mention the video of Obama’s speech. Joe Carter over at The Evangelical Outpost also reports his rejection of Obama’s association with a certain form of black theology and is highly critical of him as a politician. He has read the speech, a
lthough his second post doesn’t interact with it, but instead criticizes the whole notion of speechwriters.

Justin Taylor shares the YouTube video of the original video of Wright’s comments, but also has called the speech the best he could imagine in the circumstances, while still expressing significant concerns about Obama. He also pointed us to John McWorter’s response.

McWorter claims to have understood Obama’s speech from the perspective of the black community. The argument could be made that it is understandable that a young man of mixed race would join a strongly black church in order to cement his own understanding of his heritage. The real story to McWorter is that Obama was incredibly bold to stand up to his ex-pastor and proclaim that his view of race was just plain wrong. Although the wrongness of Wright might seem obvious to almost all whites, it is far from obvious to many blacks who feel anger and resentment about past and current injustices. As McWorter puts it:

“It must be understood what a maverick statement this is from a 40-something black politician. In the black community one does not sass one’s elders. One is expected to show a particular deference, understandably, to the generation who fought on the barricades of the Civil Rights movement. That is, to people of Jeremiah Wright’s vintage.”

McWorter goes on to argue that Obama cleverly softens what could be considered a real blow to the black community.

I would add that to me the cleverest part of the whole speech is where he also softens the blow that directly speaking about racial advantage is to whites. To acknowledge clearly that there is a whole segment of white society who have not in any sense benefited from the historical and current advantages enjoyed by some blacks was surely an example of good leadership skill.

Erika Anderson’s article is a good example in contrast of the disbelief many feel that Obama could continue in a church led by Wright for twenty years. Thomas Sowell believes the speech raised more questions than it answered.

Meanwhile, Jake from Charlotte argues that the original trigger for all the furor that led to this speech has a bigger problem than a few sound bites cherry-picked for the media. He writes:

“. . . the real problem with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is one that, sadly, has historically been systemic in the black church. The problem is that he’s a political crusader masquerading as a minister of the Gospel. . . . What you’ll find noticeably lacking in any of Wright’s pulpit rants is any real exposition of the Bible. Even more noticeably lacking is even a passing reference to the salvation found in Christ. No reference to sin (except, of course, that of white America) and grace. In short, no Gospel. That, not his detached-from-reality political views, is the real problem.”

That perspective is remarkably similar to that given by Rick Phillips over at Reformation21, who argues:

“When I first saw the YouTube excerpts of Wright’s preaching, my first thought was not, “He hates America!” or “He’s a racist!” but “What a terrible use of God’s pulpit!” I feel exactly the same outrage whenever I see a candidate standing behind a pulpit—Democrat or Republican. I feel exactly the same outrage whenever I see a preacher extolling the virtues (or vices) of a particular candidate—Democrat or Republican. Surely the church pulpit is intended for higher and better matters than the small concerns of national politics! The pulpit is not an institution of the republic, but of the Kingdom, and its only legitimate use is the preaching of King Jesus. Politics should be kept out of the pulpit, not merely for reasons of church-state separation, but because the pulpit is for matters of such greater significance.”

You might not agree with any of the above perspectives on this speech and the circumstances which led to it, of course. It seems that Obama is one of those politicians everyone has an opinion about.

As I have said before, listening to this speech is, if nothing else, an interesting exercise in studying leadership. In the internet age, we can all go back to the original sources and make our own assessment of them. The full text is available on Obama’s campaign website. Here is an extract, followed by the video itself:

“For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle—as we did in the OJ trial—or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina—or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day, and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.”


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